I have mentioned before that I became a member of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board in January 2020. Following my appointment, we had an orientation that included a lot of information about the CAB, along with the history of the Savannah River Site, etc. We were supposed to get a tour of the Site during orientation; however, the weather that day was threatening, so it was cut short.
Then the pandemic shut everything down. Some of the other newbies on the CAB have never gotten to see all the buildings that we are expected to read about. (I, at least have two advantages on that front – 1) I have been around long enough to have toured SRS and a then-functioning reactor during the 25th anniversary of the Site, and 2) I took one of the public tours while I was still at The Star.)
For those of you who may not know exactly what the CAB is about, let me try to explain how I see it. In similar facilities all over the country the Department of Energy (DOE) has set up public boards whose job it is to ask questions, raise issues, etc., regarding what’s going on at these facilities, and to try to make sure the public is informed. In all my years at The Star, I always felt that a large part of our local population had little or no clue about what goes on at the Savannah River Site. In the early years, many long-time area residents referred to it as the “bomb plant,” even though they never made bombs out there. Yes, when reactors were running, the Site made nuclear-grade materials, but bombs using those materials were made elsewhere. In recent years all the reactors were deactivated, and a major mission of the Site has been to secure the waste created by previous operations in a way that the nuclear waste will never be any threat to those of us who live in SRS’s shadow – so that our water isn’t contaminated, our wildlife isn’t endangered or a danger to us, and scientists know exactly the effect the waste is having on the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.
The CAB has various committees that are involved with “issues such as environmental clean-up on the site, budget management, materials handling, historic preservation, plans for the future uses of the site, and more” (per its website).
The biggest impact the pandemic has had on my new position was that I had never attended an in-person meeting – until last week. We went to Zoom meetings (actually Teams meetings, but you know what I mean) from March 2020 until now.
Think about what that has meant. I had never seen the other members of the CAB in person. An additional oddity in the last year has been that as of January 2021 our local CAB has been reduced to a total of six people. This panel, usually 25 strong, dwindled to six when other members’ two-year terms expired. At the same time, the officials of the Department of Energy (DOE) became concerned that there wasn’t enough diversity on CABs in all its nuclear facility oversight boards and so rejected all the applicants who were to fill those expired seats. As a result, last calendar year our local CAB indeed had 20 or so members in attendance at the virtual meetings until January, but this year we’ve limped along with six because our bylaws don’t have a methodology for filling those expired seats even on a temporary basis, until DOE approves a new batch of applicants (including the veteran members who had attempted to re-up for two more years).
In the interim, our CAB, through our chairman Gregg Murray, proposed a mechanism to keep this from happening again.
The CAB makes an effort to move meetings around the areas affected by what happens at SRS along the Savannah River, so we’ve historically rotated mostly among North Augusta, Aiken, Augusta, Columbia, Hilton Head and Charleston. The meetings have been held about every other month for two days with opportunity for local residents to give their input or to ask questions about the workings of our local nuclear facility.
Last week’s meeting had been planned for Hilton Head. For me the advantage in this was that by being far from home, the members of the CAB were able to get to know one another better. When you’re meeting online, I don’t think you really learn much about the other board members, except their stance on things to do with SRS. Otherwise, these folks have been a face in a box, so to speak. Last week several of us, including the representatives of DOE, SRS, SCDHEC and EPA, were able to eat together a few times. (Yes, the Site lives in a world of acronyms. I have identified the first two already, and the other two are S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Environmental Protection Agency.)
I was happy to find that the CAB members were mostly just like you and me. Of our six Chairman Murray is a political science and government professor at Augusta University. Jim Guille represents Beaufort County and is a retired vice president of instrument operations for Diagnostic Products Corporation. Kandace Cave is a program coordinator for Aiken County government. DeAndré Davis is the customer service manager for Augusta Regional Airport. Charles Hilton retired after 28 years as the general manager of the Breezy Hill Water & Sewage Company, Inc., and is the national director of the South Carolina Rural Water Association.
In addition to feeling some level of accomplishment after our two-day meeting, I truly enjoyed spending time with real people, talking not just about SRS, but comparing notes on how we’re dealing with life during these strange times. A few folks brought spouses, and that added dimension to my impressions. I’d really like to spend more time with a couple of these people, who apparently like to shop as much as I do. (Remember, there are outlets in Hilton Head.)
I left my two-day meeting happy to be a part of this group – and I went straight from there to spend two days with my Greenville granddaughters. All in all, last week was one of the more productive experiences I’ve had lately.
Also, if you’re interested, the next CAB meeting is set for Jan. 24-25, 2022, in either North Augusta or Aiken. I’ll keep you posted. (If you have questions, let me know at email@example.com.)